Science Fiction University: The Purpose of Art: Part Eight: Judging Art by Experience

Charlie W. Starr
Charlie W. Starr's picture

Last week I began discussing how we can tell good art from bad art? First we should judge art based on whether or not we view it in a way which glorifies God—are our hearts in the right place? Then we should judge art based on whether or not we like it—is it appealing to our imaginations’ sense of beauty? But our enjoyment of art can be both mis-trained and improved so that we might like things we shouldn’t but can also learn to like things we should. This month we continue to talk about how we know whether art is good or bad.


Good art shows rather than says. It’s not preachy or teachy. It doesn’t have a moment when it says, “And the lesson I’m trying to teach you is….” The great biblical example of this approach is in the last few chapters of the book of Job. When God finally appears to reply to Job’s demand for an audience with Him, God never once tells him about the cosmic conflict between God and Satan in Job chapter one. He never explains where Job’s suffering came from. God just recites poetry about Himself. He paints a picture of His glory in relation to the creation of the Earth and all things in it. And the longer He speaks, the more Job understands till Job concludes,
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:5-6)

Though God spoke to Job, He did not tell Job the truth; instead, using poetic images, He showed it to him.

Good art puts us through an experience. It doesn’t teach at us; it presents images, sounds, or other sensory material to us so that we encounter its content in ways which mimic how we encounter life. If the art engages us like life does, it is probably good art. I say “probably” because once we’ve decided that a book or song is engaging, the next thing we should ask is whether or not the experience was honest.

Honest Experiences

Though I have said good art should entertain us, I don’t want to end there. Art that entertains isn’t necessarily also good. Let’s take an action film with a revenge plot as an example. There’s something very satisfying in a movie where an outnumbered out-gunned hero whose life has been destroyed by his enemies takes revenge on and defeats everyone of them. But from such films we get little more than the emotional satisfaction of our simplest sense justice. Our school yard cries of “That’s not fair!” are placated, but any understanding of justice tempered by mercy, or of our need to forgive our enemies and surrender our desire for vengeance to God, is not to be found. The experience is a bit dishonest. We might even say it’s there to feed a lust rather than a desire. This doesn’t mean the movie is automatically immoral. If it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than an afternoon “escape to the movies,” a blockbuster intended for the sole purpose of entertaining our simplest tastes, then so be it. Eat some popcorn, have fun, and be aware of the artistic limits of the film. Die Hard gives us a rollick, but Gladiator, which certainly includes a revenge theme, both entertains and gives us an honest experience by raising questions which aren’t easy to answer, by treating characters as human beings and not caricatures (which often happens with villains in a story), and by presenting a picture of noble heroism.

Do I Mean Realism?

I’ve used the phrase “honest experience” because I don’t want to confuse the idea with what is called “realism.” Those who say good art should be realistic tend to dismiss any supernatural or fantasy elements in a story. They also tend to dismiss happy endings, something which God promises to us—and that’s very real. The Lord of the Rings puts us through an honest experience by giving us glimpses of the heavenly reality through the glory of a magical, fantastic world. Conversely, art which is honest in its portrayal of evil and ugliness, so long as it doesn’t end in saying these are all there is to life—movies like Schindler’s List or The Passion of the Christ, for example—such art is also good, even if it’s hard to watch. The torture of the cross was not visibly beautiful, but there is a glory to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross (read Isaiah 53 and 2 Corinthians 4:4-6 together) which we should neither ignore nor fear.
Next week we get even more practical as look at some “how to’s” regarding our exposure to the arts.